(AUDIO) An incredible story of one woman's recovery from acquired brain injury

Journalism student Micheál O’Mahony meets former model and actress, Olivia Cronin, whose incredible journey following an acquired brain injury reveals a brave woman whose determination to be a victor over - rather than a victim of - her fate is an example to us all.

“Out of difficulties grow miracles” - Jean de la Bruyere

In 1985, Olivia Cronin, was at the height of her career as a model and actress.

But following a tragic horsing accident when aged just 24 she was barely able to walk, talk, read or eat.

30 years later her persistence, determination, courage and faith makes hers a story that should be shared.

Described by many, as one of Ireland’s most talented actresses she had earned leading roles at the Abbey, Olympia and Everyman theatres. 

Journalist, Terry Keane spoke of Olivia’s “striking good looks, delightful charm and endless talent”.

At the time she was moving in circles that included acclaimed film directors Noel Pearson, Paul Mercier, Neil Jordan and actor Brendan Gleeson.

Olivia’s acting career blossomed at the young age of 20 in UCC’s Dramat and she subsequently went onto to study drama at the Oscar School of Acting, in Dublin.

While Olivia was living in Dublin, she had a deep passion for horses. She would regularly go out horse riding as a form of relaxation from her busy acting schedule. However on one sunny clear day in Sandyford, Olivia's passion ended in tragedy when she was the victim of a tragic horse riding accident.

After the accident Olivia lost consciousness. She lay on the ground and blood was coming from her ears and mouth.

Her friend Catriona, who luckily was a nurse, knew how to respond effectively to the situation. Catriona phoned for an ambulance and didn’t move Olivia to ensure no further damage.

The ambulance arrived promptly and Olivia was rushed to the hospital. It was doubtful if she would actually survive. The ambulance came and Olivia was brought to St. Vincent’s hospital in Dublin, where she was put into an induced coma.

She had major brain swelling and had damaged her frontal lobe, which is responsible for your personality and emotions. The doctors battled to save her life.

Olivia underwent emergency brain surgery. Her family was told that if she did survive, there was a strong possibility that she would be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Olivia was in a coma for almost twelve weeks. When she came out of the coma, she was barely able to walk, eat or speak. Olivia spent 6 months in intensive care.

The chances of her recovering and having a normal and independent life were slim.

Olivia was moved to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire where she stayed for over three years. She underwent intensive physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

The whole process was very, very slow. Olivia also developed post-traumatic epilepsy. There were no warning signs for Olivia in regards to when she would have a seizure. It interfered with the quality of her life and she needed to have somebody with her all the time.

She also suffered from severe headaches and tired very easily as well. Her memory was impaired and often failed to recognise even close family members. Olivia had to relearn how to talk, walk, eat, sleep and go to the toilet.

She also had to learn ways to compensate for abilities that were permanently changed because of her brain injury.

She had very little strength in her legs and her balance was poor. With the help of occupational therapy and painful physiotherapy, Olivia was gradually able to walk again.

Her speech improved slowly with the assistance of an amazing speech therapist called Paula Keane. Gradually some of her old strengths emerged. She showed great faith and courage in her three intense years in Dun Laoghaire.

When she was discharged, her recovery continued at home with the support of family, friends and therapists.

Thankfully, nearly 30 years since the original accident, Olivia’s recovery is regarded as beyond a miracle. She now attends an organisation called Headway.

Headway provides a range of services and support to bring positive change to people with brain injury and their carers. In Headway, Olivia now participates in many activities such as swimming, football, “movement to music”, computers and art and design.

She also gets the opportunity to visit museums, art galleries, coffee shops and many other places. Just recently she started swimming for the first time.

Through her courage and supports, she has gained so much independance. As her seizures are now controlled with medication, she can now lives in her own apartment, beside her sister Lisa, who is also her carer.

Her apartment overlooks beautiful cork harbour, in Crosshaven.

Acquired Brain Injury: The facts

Every year many families in Ireland are affected by an acquired brain injury which is a devastating and life-changing experience for everyone.

Known as a ‘Hidden Disability’ it presents many obvious and hidden challenges for both the person and their families.

In Europe, brain injuries from trauma are responsible for more years of disability than any other cause and can be acused by stroke, brain infection, trauma or brain surgery.

Brain injury is the foremost cause of death and disability in young people. Those that are between 15-29 years of age are three times more likely to sustain a brain injury than any other groups.

It is estimated that approximately 20,000 people experience an acquired brain injury in Ireland annually.

Up to 30,000 people living in Ireland, between the ages of 16 to 65, are also estimated to be living with long-term problems following brain injury, which represents 0.7% of the population.

Recovering from a brain injury depends on other areas of the brain learning to take over the function of the damaged areas.

It relies on the hard work from the patient, their family and the rehabilitation team to strengthen the remaining abilities to maximize performance. It is estimated that only around 29 percent of people with a severe head injury, make a positive recovery.

* Micheál O’Mahony is a MA in Journalism with New Media student from Cork Institute of Technology.


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